Sergey Zavyalov's 'Four Good News Stories'
With an introduction by translator Eugene Ostashevsky
Note: As a result of the horrific and unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is a lot of resistance to “Russian” literature, music, art, everything right now. This is justified in the case of some writers and cultural figures. Yet there is also an increasing urgency to understand this war not in terms of nationalities in conflict, but in terms of empire, which always complicates ascriptions of nationality. There are Russian speakers on both sides of the conflict — inside and outside of Ukraine, and inside and outside of Russia. And there is an increasing urgency around the decolonization of Russian-language writing: addressing the reality that there are many writers not identified with the Russian state and its war, many of whom work in resistance to that state, many of them because their ancestors were colonized by the Russian and Soviet empires, just as the Ukrainians were. This is among the reasons we are glad to be able to bring readers’ attention to the extraordinary writing of Sergey Zavyalov, introduced here by translator Eugene Ostashevsky. — Kevin M. F. Platt
Sergey Zavyalov, born 1958, is a Russian-language poet, critic, and classical philologist. His family has roots among the indigenous Finno-Ugric groups of Mordovia, a republic of the Russian Federation located to the east of Moscow. He spent his formative years in Leningrad, where, in the 1990s, he associated with the experimental circle of Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Vasilii Kondratiev, and Alexander Skidan. In 2004 he emigrated to Finland and currently lives in Switzerland.
In the highly original tonal work of his Leningrad period, Zavyalov builds texts from fragmentary utterances that look back to Greek and Latin verse patterns. Or perhaps it would have been better to say “look forward,” since Zavyalov sees classical poetry in an unfamiliar, radically futurizing way. His Horace becomes the contemporary of Celan. He converts the fragmentariness imposed on ancient texts by time into something that may be either the cinematic montage of consciousness or else ruins left by historical trauma (a parallel with Anne Carson is not impossible here). It might be surprising to some readers that indigenous Mordovian themes fit as organically as they do into this ancient-modern poetic landscape. Zavyalov’s decolonizing translingualism both introduces fragments of indigenous Finno-Ugric languages and employs grammatically incorrect, nonnative constructions in Russian.
After immigration his poetry becomes even more concerned with history, and with the Soviet twentieth-century experience in particular. The aim is epic rather than lyric, and the language is suddenly clear and even chiseled, although different parts of text present very different social discourses. Zavyalov, who identifies as a Marxist, focuses on the historical traumas suffered by people who have no language of their own. These are the workers and peasants in whose name the Soviet state was built, but who also constituted the great majority of the population that was imprisoned, deported, starved, or murdered in the years of Stalinism. The poet’s attention to the subaltern brings explicitly class and postcolonial optics to the historical catastrophe of Stalinism and World War II, whose traumatic effects are still being worked out in politically independent Russian poetry (for example, by Maria Stepanova, Polina Barskova, and many others). The current invasion of Ukraine, in its deep exploitation of Soviet-period lies and Soviet-period trauma, clearly shows why twenty-first-century Russian poetry cannot get past twentieth-century history.
In 2015 Zavyalov received the Andrei Bely Prize for Soviet Cantatas, three serial poems whose main speakers are an old worker at Lenin’s funeral, a Mordvin farm woman whose children died in a collectivization-induced famine, and a young man blinded and paralyzed during the war. These multidiscursive poems show the formation of the speakers’ interiorities by public Soviet clichés. Despite layers of historical irony, they are profoundly and directly moving. For example, the woman thanks Stalin for the persecution, during the Great Terror, of officials scapegoated for the famine, which they allegedly engineered in order to harm the Soviet state. Each of her speeches in the five isomorphic sections of the poem precedes Stalinist propaganda poetry and slogans in a Mordvin language that is nonetheless so colonized by Soviet Russian as to be transparent to the Russian reader.
Zavyalov’s 2010 book, Rechi (in English, either “Speeches” or “Discourses,” from the Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie publishing house in Moscow), contains many cycles, of which the most affecting is probably “The Nativity Fast,” set in Leningrad during the first blockade winter of 1941–1942. Each of its isomorphic sections, devoted to a particular date, resembles a radio-themed sound installation. It begins with a weather report, continues with liturgical feast day information, then with the contents of siege food coupons, then with various voices of the besieged, excerpts from medical reports on alimentary dystrophy, news reports of a far-off Soviet counteroffensive, and, finally, a Church Slavic Magnificat, a hymn of the Christmas service. Church music — or else Soviet music — haunts Zavyalov’s work: he studied to become a violinist and sings as he reads. A shorter, also very moving piece is “The Time of Annihilation,” about hygiene and Auschwitz.
“Four Good News Stories,” the work presented in translation here, was included in the same book. It consists of four sections, “The Good News from the Erzya,” “The Good News from the Moksha,” “The Good News from the Mishars,” and “The Good News from the Ruz.” The Erzya and the Moksha are two Mordvin ethnic groups, each with its own language. The Mishar Tatars are Mordvin Muslims, and the Ruz are the Russified population. “Good News” is, of course, the literal meaning of the word “Gospels.” Indeed, the text is full of quotations from that source, to which the Mishar section adds quotations from the Qur’an. The protagonist — called Ineškajpaz in the Erzya language, Ocüškajbas in Moksha (both meaning “High Ruler”), or else Azor or Ocäzor (meaning “Lord” or “Sir”) — is a political and social messiah come to redeem the Mordvin peoples. He goes with his disciples to the capital of ancient Mordovia, today the city of Nizhny Novgorod, but is seized and martyred by the Russians in the name of peace.
The composition was translated collectively in the presence of the poet, who was especially helpful with Mordovian terms. The coordinating translator was Eugene Ostashevsky. The translation team included Elina Alter, Polina Barskova, Veniamin Gushchin, D. Brian Kim, Lev Oborin, Kevin M. F. Platt, Konstantin Shavlovsky, Bela Shayevich, and Ekaterina Zakharkiv. The work was carried out October 7–10, 2022, in Yerevan and Aghveran, Armenia, during the Your Language My Ear colloquium, organized by Polina Sadovskaya of PEN America, Kevin M. F. Platt of the University of Pennsylvania, and Armen Ohanyan of PEN Armenia.
FOUR GOOD NEWS STORIES
THE GOOD NEWS FROM THE ERZYA
And Ineškajpaz went about all the cities and villages of the Alatyr country, speaking at their schools and technical and vocational colleges, and houses of culture, delivering the good news of the imminent Independence, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.
- Especially in the August of that year, when the rains fell without cease;
- when the black soil became not mud but sludge;
- when the highway past Čaunza (which didn’t even have asphalt then, just tarred-over gravel) even seemed to have changed in its scent;
- and in the church of Atyashevo (which had held services all through the Soviet years) — the blue wooden cupola, covered in dumb little gold stars —
- the old Mordvin women made their bows on the feast day of Elijah the Prophet without their usual zeal;
- and the ragged village drunks, and the girls on summer break from Saransk, where they could not forbear treading the path of whoredom,
- and the freak of nature with a humongous dangling head trotting over from some wreck
- all sought shelter from the wet wind under the bus stop overhang as they awaited Him.
But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they were faint and had no pity for one another.
And there went out a fame of him throughout the Mordovian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and the representatives of the national intelligentsia said: “Here has come one who calls himself Son of Erzya, and yet he loves his grub and his booze and is a friend unto sundry thieves and whores?”
- Just about anything could be said of this odd company which sat evenings that August at what was here called “a café” —
- that smelly Ardatov diner — across the road from the never dismantled holiday tribune made of garishly painted plywood;
- all of them looking worn and exhausted, or, as it is written, as they that labor and are heavy laden;
- ate without washing their hands, drank vodka, looked glumly before them, refusing to speak in Russian;
- at that time the local toughs (it was one of them who later squealed to the pigs) relocated out of fear beneath the concrete beach umbrellas by the river,
- where they smoked Nords (for some reason said to be less prone to getting soggy), cursed vehemently, and threatened to fuck everyone up.
Then the cops held a council against Him, how they might destroy him. But when Ineškajpaz knew it, he withdrew himself from thence: and great multitudes followed him, and he healed them all.
THE GOOD NEWS FROM THE MOKSHA
And it came to pass afterward, that He went throughout every city and village of the Moksha country, and the Twelve were with Him, and certain women, which ministered unto Him of their bodies and substance.
- And then it was the beginning of spring, and higher than ever was the water over the land,
- as if the Warm Sea which — so the old women used to say — the inäzor Tüštän went off to find, came to his seed of itself
- And the village of Mokštrva (called in Russian Sandy Kanakovo), where they stopped for the duration of the highwater, became an island.
- And the children (Let the little children come to me! Forbid them not! — He said) were taken to school in Kondorovka, in motorboats.
- And the crowns of oaks protruded over the water, and the ice crust would not melt in the willows.
- And the whole week that they were there the sun blinded the seeing and deafened the hearing,
- And when the thunder of milking machines was not heard over the farms, there even stood, you could say, a silence.
- And since the waters did not abate, they — on a sabbath, at the beginning of the third watch — knocked the lock off a neighbor’s flatboat, but He was not with them.
And in the fourth watch of the night Ocüškajbas went unto them, walking on the sea.
On a certain day He goes with His disciples to Saransk, to the train station, and he says to them, Let us go up to the Sura country. And they bought the second cheapest tickets. And they went off.
- And it came to pass at 4.15 in the morning, and the passenger train #669 Gorky-Penza was only twenty minutes late.
- And at the time of their progress He fell asleep. And at first there was heavy snow and a blizzard outside the window, but it quieted by dawn, yet the air was so cold
- that when He came out of the train at Penza, the whole city lay covered in snowdrifts, and the square before the regional Party Committee offices was like an ice desert, and a policeman was walking it,
- And in the morning light He was going up into the old city, not cowering from the wind, without a raincoat and hatless,
- and mighty smoke barreled from the chimneys of one-story wooden hovels.
- And as they went, the sick and the wretched were crawling out of the alleyways, and they were leading the blind, and bearing men stricken with palsy,
- And in the garden square by the K. A. Savitsky College of the Arts much people gathered unto him, and he spoke to them in the Moksha language,
- And he taught them right there, in the cold wind, and as none of them understood, He began to touch those who came and those who were brought unto him
- And he healed them all. And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why hast thou fallen silent, Ocäzor?
- He answered and said unto them, I touched them, for they had no tongue so that they may be spoken unto,
- And he performed miracles, for no reason would enter their ears.
For this people’s heart is waxed gross.
THE GOOD NEWS FROM THE MISHARS
Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.
In the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate.
- There was a certain rich Tatar; his name was Ildar and he came from the Kyzyl October Region of the Gorky Province.
- He was a judicious criminal: he was never captured or killed.
- He was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day.
- Every Friday he went to the mosque.
- And there was a certain homeless bum named Ravil who was laid at the doors of the train station toilet in Sergach, full of sores; and the stray dogs ran up and licked his sores.
- And the other Tatars were eating, drinking, marrying, paying the bride price, giving in marriage and circumcising their sons,
- for they did eat, they drank, they bought cars, they resold deficit goods, they builded co-op apartments and summer homes,
- and then came fall, and the rains came down from Uraza Bayram to Kurban Bayram,
- and then winter, and spring, and summer, bringing Sabantuy with it,
- and then again fall and once again Uraza.
Verily, Allah is all-knowing and all-clement! Whoso obeys Allah and His Prophet, He will admit him to gardens underneath which rivers flow, therein dwelling forever.
If thou couldst only see how unbelievers go to their deaths: the angels take them, beating their faces and their backs. Fight his enemies, till the religion is Allah’s entirely; and if they incline to peace, do thou incline to it; and put thy trust in Allah; He is the all-hearing, the all-knowing.
- But in the fall, and winter, and spring, and summer, there were those whose faces they spat into, whose lips were split with their boots, whose heads were whacked with a stick. So did the men of the Law.
- And then there were those who cried “good” of certain things and “evil” of other things and proved their righteousness with the knife. These were not men of the Law.
- And He would say onto them “Hallowed be,” since all was in filth and abomination,
- and “Let it come” since nothing came and nothing happened,
- and “Let it be done” since there was nothing,
- and they themselves were not
- but only His sweat, falling on the earth in drops like unto blood.
- And they said unto Him, “Azor, Azor,” and He answered them, “Go fuck yourselves. I know you not.”
And they devised, and Allah devised, and Allah is the best of devisers. There is no God but Allah, the all-mighty, the all-wise.
THE GOOD NEWS FROM THE RUZ
After these things Azor appointed other seventy also, and sent them two and two before His face into every city and urban-type settlement, and every regional administrative center, and even unto each rural council.
- And these were Ordań-buje Town and Atyashevo, Najmany and Kochkurovo,
- and also Ichalki and Kemlä in the land of Erzya.
- And they were Potma and Javas, Salazgoŕ and Pišlä,
- and also Purdoš and Siviń in the land of Moksha.
- And Pikšeń and Jaz, Arzamas and Alatyr in the Purgaz domain,
- and also Čembar and Poim, Narovčat and Kameškir in the Pureš domain.
- And Saran Town with its suburbs: Atemar, Posop, and Lämbir.
- And Penza with its suburbs: Šemyšlej, Ramzaj, and Ardym.
- And you, Obran City, Nizny Novgorod, father of Mordovian cities, thy horn is exalted.
- May that which was sounded through the high torama of Tüštän come to pass:
And you, land of the Burtas, lying on the steppes that stretch along the highways out there past Sura River, and ye, seed of Meshchera, forest people of the Tsna River, wondering the whorish path of the Russian faith, even ye have seen the light of Independence and behold: to them which sat in the shadow of death a light is sprung up.
And so they came nigh to Obran City (Nizhny Novgorod) and when He was come into Nizhny Novgorod and descended down Sverdlov Street, now known as Bolshaya Pokrovskaya, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this? And the multitude said: This is Ineškajpaz, the God of the Mordvins.
- So basically everyone knows how this affair ended, when the whole crew decided to stay in Nizhny till Easter.
- Everyone knows what took place upon the Way of Saint George around noon Moscow time that Friday, and what took place around 12AM Sunday at the Red Cemetery.
- But the main thing is that life in the city was not disrupted despite attempts to the contrary, public transit continued to function,
- public order was maintained solely through the efforts of the local police
- without the support of the riot police, without precision bombing, without explosions in high-rises.
- So nobody ever did smuggle in any Sword: peace stayed on Mordovian land,and good will dwelt with its multinational peoples.
- And concord between son and father, daughter and mother,
- mother-in-law and wife, and mother-in-law and husband,
- and each employer and employee.
Tetäń, Cöranť dy Holy Gosť lemse.